Sunday, June 16, 2013

Le plus ça change…

Just west of Big Branch Marsh NWR on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain, between the towns of Lacombe and Mandeville, is Fontainebleau State Park. The structures shown here are all that is left of a sugar mill built by the dissolute French Creole nobleman, developer and politician Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville on his Fontainebleau Plantation.

De Marigny made his primary residence in New Orleans, but maintained Fontainebleau as a summer retreat away from the crowds and slightly more extreme climate of the big city south of Pontchartrain. (The North Shore has always served as a sort of playground for New Orleanians.) But much as he may have enjoyed country life, he was not about to let the land sit idle. He actively developed the town of Mandeville, just to the west of Fontainebleau, and the plantation itself was one of the first large-scale sugarcane operations in what became the United States. Another of de Marigny's commercial interests was a brick kiln, which presumably furnished the materials for the mill.

Alas, de Marigny was too unstable to enjoy success for long. His political career peaked when he became president of the Louisiana Senate; he subsequently ran for governor three times and lost each election. More significantly, he also gambled away his fortune and died in poverty. (Though one suspects, given his connections, that it may have been a rather genteel poverty.)

But if Bernard de Marigny had a checquered career, consider the political changes that swept through the North Shore (many of which de Marigny lived through):
  • Part of French Louisiana until 1763
  • Ceded to Great Britain after the French and Indian War, became part of the British territory of West Florida
  • Ceded to Spain in 1783
  • Became part of the independent Republic of West Florida in 1810
  • Annexed by the United States 90 days later
  • Louisiana seceded from the United States and became the Republic of Louisiana in 1861
  • Louisiana joined the Confederate States of America soon thereafter
  • Louisiana once again part of the United States in 1865

That's seven national flags, with one repeat, in just over a century. One of those flags pulled double duty: the flag of the Republic of West Florida resurfaced later, on an unofficial basis, as the Bonnie Blue Flag of the early Confederacy. (Evidence for the two flags representing "relation by descent" as opposed to "convergent similarity" is the fact that the Bonnie Blue made its first appearance in Mississippi, part of which had been included in the Republic of West Florida. Occam's Razor would argue against coincidence, as secession-minded Mississippians might very reasonably turn to an historic symbol of independence from their own relatively recent past.)

Note also that this part of Louisiana, administered by Spain and not France in 1803, was not part of the Louisiana Purchase (though some in the States argued at the time that it was). St. Tammany, in which Fontainebleau is located, and the neighbouring parishes are known as the Florida Parishes.

I like the timeless feel of this particular spot, with shrubs and vines slowly reclaiming what is left of the sugar mill, and Spanish moss-laden live oaks towering nearby. The woods and even the parking lot close to the beach further down the road are haunted by Cooper's hawks and barred owls. The heat, and the humidity, and the creeping greenery and the birds and the bugs are, and I suspect always have been, the true masters of the North Shore.

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